“Nighttime. A dark city. Our brooding protagonist is a shadowy vigilante. He stands on a rooftop, overlooking the city he has sworn to protect. It may or may not be raining. Our hero hears the sounds of evil in the distance and pursues.” If you can’t tell what hero that was supposed to be, it’s because seemingly every superhero character in mainstream media. After the success of Batman, not just in comics, but in other media such as The Dark Knight and the Arkham game franchise, Batman, it seems, is everywhere. The success of Batman has lead to “The Brooding Vigilante” becoming a common archetype throughout popular culture, or at least just in the superhero genre. This is what we call the Batman Singularity: that all entertainment will eventually be Batman. This, of course, is starting to cause a few problems.
The CW has achieved success with their adaptation of a classic DC hero, the Green Arrow, titled Arrow which has had four seasons and lead to several spin-offs. As well-received as Arrow has been, there is something lacking that fans might miss. On Arrow, Oliver Queen takes on the mantel of a hooded vigilante who hunts down the criminals of Starling City with the use of a bow and arrow, while in his day-to-day life he acts rather glum and deals with the family drama B-plots. Green
Arrow (as opposed to the CW’s character, simply called “the Arrow”) has always been a humorous character. For whatever reason, this aspect of the character is ab
sent from the show. Oliver makes few jokes, and when he does, they all feel terribly out of place. Arrow‘s sister-show, The Flash, is a refreshing break from Arrow. It’s a show with a character whose tragic background influences them but doesn’t prevent them from acting happily. Arrow, while a decent show, seems to have handful of flaws, and while happier characters should not necessarily be top of the list, a Green Arrow more like what we see from the comics, both wise-cracking and ass-kicking, but most importantly: fun. (UPDATE: We Minored in Film‘s Kelly Konda wrote a very eloquent piece about how The Flash impacted the fourth season of Arrow, in that it has started moving away from such a grim and solemn Oliver Queen. Check it out here!)
Of all the superhero characters similar to Batman, none of them have done it quite as well as the Marvel Studios series Daredevil. When Netflix launched the series, people binge-watched it immediately and sang its praise everywhere. It was well-made, well-acted, and don’t even get me started on the fight sequences. They’re amazing.
One of the better things about Daredevil is that it is a part of the larger Marvel Cinematic franchise, but other than the occasional reference to Avengers’ Battle of New York, you wouldn’t really know it. However, much more than content, Daredevil separates itself from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in tone: we don’t have Captain America’s optimism, Thor’s naivete, or Iron Man’s humor, but instead we have the unsettling and dark persona of “the man in the mask” that roams (not New York, but specifically) the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. But, in the grand scheme of the genre, it felt a tad familiar. Again, viewers had the brooding vigilante type. A man who was afraid of killing his enemies and beat his enemies to a pulp.
(A necessary note: the similarity Daredevil bears to Batman is understandable, both having important volumes written by Frank Miller. At a surface glance, both have maintained the brooding vigilante archetype in all media. [Not to mention, Daredevil, being blind, uses echolocation to hear his way around… like a bat!] Comic fans in Hollywood recognize this: Kevin Smith, comic mega-fan and friend of Ben Affleck, said that Affleck took the part in 2003’s Daredevil film because he thought there wouldn’t be another Batman film after Batman & Robin.)
Man of Steel, Superman’s most recent film outing, clearly took a page from The Dark Knight. Some of the same people (with David S. Goyer writing and Christopher Nolan producing) worked on the film, thus giving it a similar tone. The film lacked color, took itself too seriously, and just seemed utterly dismal. Many fans lauded it for trying something different, many fans hated it for betraying the source material. (Critically, it has just 56% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Now, the movie had many problems, and though tone might not have been the biggest, it made it difficult to enjoy.
More than all these similar works, however, we have DC trying to shoehorn Batman in everywhere they can. Man of Steel needs a sequel? Quickly, bring in Batman! (In the process of writing this article, *visionary* Man of Steel director Zach Snyder seemed to confirm that Dawn of Justice will have more screen time for Batman than Superman, a bold move for a follow-up to a Superman film.) Running out of villains for Arrow? Borrow Ra’s Al Ghul from the Batman series (though to be fair, Ra’s has probably appeared in a handful of Green Arrow storylines, despite a far greater association with Batman). Need to crank out another TV show? Gotham! It’s just like every other Batman story you love, without the protagonist that ties it all together!
David S. Goyer, famed Screenwriter of great superhero films – such as Blade and Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy – and not so great superhero films – such as Man of Steel and the Ghost Rider films – made some waves in 2014 by addressing questions about fan-favorite Justice League character, Martian Manhunter, and whether he would appear in upcoming Justice League films. Goyer angered fans by stating, “He can’t be called Martian Manhunter because that’s ****ing goofy. He can be called Manhunter.” (This is by no means the worst thing that Goyer has said.) This is a place where Batman is getting in the way of other characters; the stoic tone of Batman films have made superheroes so serious that use of the name “Martian” is deemed too silly for audiences to enjoy. Now, this could be Goyer trying to stay with the established tone of the past few years, but that is precisely the problem. It seems that many of the creative teams behind DC films and television are so afraid to do anything that starts to move away from what they feel comfortable making.
Beyond the surface similarities of a stoic, brooding, vigilante who growls at the godless criminals of his city, there is a deeper similarity of themes. Each of the works discussed involve death and killing as a recurring motif. For most of their first seasons, Daredevil and Arrow are arguing whether or not it is moral to kill the criminals that have plagued their city. Batman makes similar choices, and constantly debates whether or not to kill the Joker. Man of Steel (and likely its upcoming sequel,) also address death, because although to-kill-or-not-to-kill isn’t a question that Superman asks, *SPOILER ALERT* the killing of Zod remains the film’s most impactful moment (which, for whatever reason, we likely won’t see the ramifications until the release of Batman v. Superman) and an interesting break from the character’s tradition.
And the importance of this theme is vital: life and death is a core theme in many great fictional stories. Death being the end of life, it makes sense to have a great deal of fiction that highlight it as a central theme. Certainly, the singularity isn’t all bad.
To conclude, let me say that the Singularity, largely is visual.
Because the only place to be a vigilante is from the top of a building.
EDIT: It’s occurred to me that Batman, and these other Brooding Vigilantes (except Superman/Man of Steel) are at thei
r core, noir stories. They all seem to take place in large cities, with insane criminals and dark themes. Sure, there isn’t a perfect one-to-one comparison with the typical noir themes, but it’s still there, to the point where DC has released noir versions of some of Batman’s best outings. Here, they emulate the visual style of the genre that might have inspired the character.
There was a time when Batman didn’t brood, when the Batman Singularity didn’t apply to him: it was the Adam West series in the 1960’s, which simply wouldn’t sell to modern audiences. An air of seriousness in superheroes, when done right, is what keeps us from getting stuff like Batman & Robin and the 2011 Green Lantern adaptation, and gives us more stuff like Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Netflix’s take on Daredevil. Affleck likened Batman to the Hamlet in that “we accept that he’s played by different actors with different interpretations.” The Batman Singularity works for Batman, but if characters in all media are made to emulate him, then what’s the point?
Sure, Batman is always morning his parents, and Daredevil has to have an intimidating presence, but why not let Superman be happy? Where are Oliver Queen’s jokes? When will we reach a point that it isn’t “****ing goofy” to call Martian Manhunter a Martian? Nolan’s trilogy are praised for their gritty realism which has inspired all the films and shows mentioned above, but why bring gritty realism to a movie involving a shape-shifter from from Mars, or a man who runs around shooting criminals with arrows? Not everything that works for Batman will work for the other heroes, and assuming that it will is a limit on creativity.
*A special thanks to my friend Dan for being the first to tell me about the Batman Singularity.